Video games industry analysts are fond of comparing the games industry with film: both are splashy, highly visual and visceral, both cost a lot to create/market/distribute, and both compete for people’s entertainment dollars and time. When news hit a few years ago that the video game industry had overtaken the film industry in revenues, we gleefully paraded that news through the streets like we had an ousted dictator’s head on a stick. But with digital distribution and a temporary disruption in the games publishing ecosystem, business has changed dramatically. Those looking to get ahead would be far better served to study publishing, rather than film, to inform a sound strategy.
Let’s look … in a bookOH GOD WHY IS HE READING THAT?
A Year on Your Rear
With a staunch amount of dedication and a very comfy couch, you can conceivably watch an entire year’s film output. Wikipedia lists the major film releases of 2012 at about two hundred and sixty flicks. Games are a different story. As of Q4 2012, there were over twelve thousand games in the Apple App Store alone. Divide that by the three years the store had existed, and that’s a rate of about four thousand games released per year (although, to be fair, annual App Store growth is not so evenly distributed). Movies may average two hours, but how long does a game take to play? AAA titles can run anywhere from twenty to one hundred hours, and many mobile titles are designed for endless play. If Joe Average Canadian were to spend his 5.5 daily leisure hours exclusively playing iOS games for the entire year, he could only spend half an hour on each one.
And tell me: who could spend only half an hour on Trucker Parking 3D?
That’s four thousand games accounted for, but the iOS App Store is only one unique marketplace of many; add to that the yearly throughput of Steam, Android, the three home consoles and the wider PC market, and i wouldn’t be surprised if the total number of games in existence after these forty years outnumbered the total number of films released in the past century. While Joe Average Canadian could watch all the movies released in a year, he could never, ever play all the games.
(but not for lack of trying)
Joe Average Canadian would have even more trouble finding the time to read all of the books released in a year. Wikipedia claims that the total number of books released in a single year in the United States alone is 328,259! Books are priced similarly to games, with big-ticket bestselling hardcover tomes coming in at $40-50, down to cheapie legacy or fan fiction one-offs being digitally distributed for a buck. Books require a similar time commitment as games; the the amount of time i spent playing Skyrim is probably on par with the time i spent trying to muscle through George R. R. Martin’s Game of Holy Shit – 924 Pages??. And owing to mobile devices, games have been freed from their specialized locations; just as film escaped theatres to living rooms, so too did games escape arcades to those same living rooms, and now travel with us everywhere in our pockets. We’ve long been able to enjoy a book under a tree in some isolated meadow, and now we can enjoy video games in the same setting.
Uh … yes. An isolated meadow. (shifty eyes)
Lately, i’ve been freaked out about the overwhelming number of games that have been flooding the marketplace. The Internet, which brought digital distribution, has been our printing press. Fairly newbie-friendly development tools like Flash, GameMaker and Unity are our desktop publishing. Open stores like XBLiG, the iOS App Store and the Android Marketplace are our print-on-demand.
Episodic Nancy Drew games are our episodic Nancy Drew novels.
Teeth clenched and hair turning rapidly white from stress, i’ve been repeating the mantra “nobody needs another video game”. And frankly, they don’t. We have enough video games to keep us busy for a good long time. The inevitable response to my Chicken Littling has been to say “well the world doesn’t need another movie, and people keep making and watching movies”. But that’s not the best comparison. For a true understanding of what’s happening with games, we need to look at books. At an output of over a quarter of a million new books a year from the US, people really don’t need another book. But we still buy books.
The reason why you buy one book, and read an Amazon review summary of another, is likely the same reason why you play one game, and watch a YouTube Let’s Play video of another. Figuring out that reason could be one secret to increased success selling games.
Any indie game developer, then, would be well-served to closely study how the book publishing industry functions if he wants to make a go of things. What role do publishers play? Some may give authors advances against royalties (our version of project-level development funding), but i assume that many more book publishers serve as marketing machines, ensuring that book stores and marketplaces stock your title, and that your title gets seen above all others.
How do book stores help customers find what they’re looking for, amidst a fresh dumping of 328,259 new titles a year? Market intelligence on book stores states that the vast number of customers browsing through a physical store don’t know what they’re looking for. A book store’s shelf layouts, end aisles promotions, search kiosks and friendly staff serve to ensure customers leave happy, with interesting products in-hand.
Book store staff went from selling content, to selling e-readers that can read content. Perhaps the role of an Apple Store staffer will transition from selling content readers like iPhones and iPads, to selling content like apps and games.
Games may look like movies, but they act like books. And increasingly, the games industry more closely resembles book publishing than it does the film industry. What lessons can we learn from books, with their dramatically more dire supply and demand problem, that we can apply to our own industry?
Don’t ask me. i’m only a game developer.